As I reached the top of Morro do Pai Inacio and stopped to look around, I thought to myself for roughly the 800th time since getting here; this is why people rave about Chapada.
I had been in Bahia, Brazil, for roughly five years at that point but had never ventured particularly far from the beach. Because, well, beach. And why would I feel the need to venture out? When you think Brazil, you don’t think hiking — you think beach, Carnaval, and the amazon. But, my husband, knowing I love nature and hiking, kept insisting, we need to go to Chapada.
He wasn’t wrong.
What IS Chapada Diamantina National Park?
Chapada, as the park is referred to locally, is 600 square miles (1,500 square km) of protected wilderness and a hiker’s paradise. Hikers from around the world descend upon Chapada for single-day and multi-day hikes — and while some parts of Chapada suffer from overtourism, other areas remain virtually unexplored.
Located 280 miles (450 km) west of Salvador and shaped like a long rectangle that runs north-to-south, the park consists of vast swaths of meadows, caves, lakes, and generally rugged terrain. The park is used for extensive scientific and environmental research, controlled ecotourism, and homes several protected animal species (various birds, but also pumas, jaguars, armadillos, and anteaters).
Designated as a national park in 1985, Chapada Diamantina means Diamond Plateau in English and gets its name from the countless plateaus in the region and the region’s history of diamond exploration.
Visit a land of unforgettable waterfalls and natural water slides
I bet you didn’t know that the second-tallest waterfall in the world is in Chapada Diamantina National Park, did you?
It’s OK. I didn’t either.
Fumaça waterfall, a two-hour hike out of the Vale do Capão, is the world’s second tallest waterfall at 1,247 feet (380 meters). It is just one of the dozens of stunning waterfalls that call Chapada Diamantina National Park home, so if you can’t get to that one, there are plenty of others.
Some waterfalls, like Fumaça, are meant to be admired. Many others, such as Poço do Diabo (devil’s well), invite you to strip down to the swimsuit under your hiking clothes and take a refreshing waterfall shower. Other well-known waterfalls in the park include Palmital, Encantada, Brejoes, Mandassaia, Rio Preto, and Purificaçao.
And for the kid in all of us, the trails around Lençois — including Trilha do Ribeirão do Meio — will lead you to natural stone water slides.
Climb towering plateaus with breathtaking vistas
One of the most popular of these plateaus is known as Morro do Pai Inácio. If you are going on a day trip with a guide out of Lençois, this will likely be a stop — and it’s well worth it.
There are several things to love about Pai Inácio:
- It’s a relatively modest and short hike, making it accessible to hikers of all ages and abilities. While the peak sits at 3,800 feet (1,150 meters), the relative increase in elevation is a mere 250 meters or a 30-minute climb.
- The insanely-Instagrammable views.
- A marvelous, naturally-created rock garden that includes orchids, cactus, lichens, and more.
- An entertaining origin story. There are a few different versions, so I will let your guide tell you theirs.
- It’s easily accessible from the main road through the park.
Other well-known plateaus include Morrão and Mirante do Pati, Or, take the road less traveled and visit any of the lesser-known (and less busy) peaks that your guide will take you to.
With the tallest plateaus capping out at just under 5,000 feet (1,500 meters), most are accessible to anyone with even a moderate hiking ability.
Explore countless caves
The same geology features that gave us the plateaus and waterfalls also created an elaborate cave structure, and a stop at a cave is almost always a part of a guide’s route.
Safety is always a concern for me for something like entering a cave, but I was impressed by the care taken. Guides gave us construction-style helmets and flashlights, and a sturdy handrail was at the entrance. At no point on our tour did I feel that the area we were entering wasn’t safe to enter.
Some of the most visited caves in the region are Lapa Doce, Lapão, Pratinha, Gruta Azul, Torrinha, and Buraco do Cão. Fun fact: Lapa Doce is considered the third-largest cave in Brazil — one branch goes on for 23 km!
Swim in crystal-clear waters
One of the unexpected delights of our trip to Chapada was Fazenda Pratinha — an eco-resort that hosted us for a day where we swam and ziplined into crystal clear waters.
The resort also offered snorkeling and other water-based activities, but I enjoyed the clear, refreshing water so much you couldn’t get me to move!
Expand your palette with unique foods from the interior of Bahia, Brazil
While rice, beans, meat, and a smattering of something colorful that passes for salad is the meal-du-jour in Salvador, eating food from “the interior” is something else entirely. In the Chapada area, regional food is denoted by the word sertanajo(a), which translates to backcountry.
This type of food is characterized by making the most of what you have — so it tends to use few ingredients, leans in on local, and makes it all as tasty as possible. Staple ingredients are root vegetables, corn, coconut, various sugarcane byproducts, and beef (primarily a dried, salted variety known as carne do sol).
In Lençois, where we stayed, we ate as much sertaneja food as possible and never walked away from the table disappointed.
All of this is just a few hours from Salvador, Brazil
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Continue the adventure with more adventure activities
Single-day and multi-day hiking trips with guides certainly make up most of the activity, but if your idea of getting out into the wilderness is different, there is still plenty for you to do.
The area offers pretty much every related activity you can think of — from repelling to mountain biking to horseback riding, rock climbing, and occasionally, ballooning.
As with all adventure sports, use your best judgment when it comes to whether the operator is delivering a safe experience or not. But, I was impressed with what I saw on our trip, and at no point did I ever feel like any operator was putting me in danger. And, I’ve heard and read that from countless other visitors.
Finding a guide in Chapada Diamantina
For DIY travelers, there isn’t much more grating than needing a guide to get around. I know, I’m that person.
But, in Chapada Diamantina I think a paid guide is an investment well-made. Not only do you need a vehicle to get around, but many of the roads are not marked, and in places like Fazenda Pratinha you can’t get in for the day unless you are with a guide.
There are a few different ways to find a guide:
- Do your research ahead of time and book a guide online ahead of time. If you know what you want to do, I highly recommend this path as guides do book up during popular periods.
- Show up and ask your pousada. I had no idea what to expect, so I wanted to get the lay of the land before committing to a specific guide or tour. We asked our pousada owner and got a great guide and outing. All of the pousadas (like a bed and breakfast) have relationships with professional guides and will gladly help arrange a tour.
- Walk to a trailhead and see what happens. There are some great day hikes right from Lençois — no car necessary. Guides tend to hang out at the trailheads, ready to offer their services. We encountered an excellent guide in Lençois just this way and saw things we would never have seen otherwise.
What are the best jumping-off points to visit Chapada Diamantina?
Most visitors to Chapada Diamantina make their home base one of two different places — Lençois or Capão.
- Lençois is a small, tourism-oriented village, filled with mid-range pousadas and mid-range and higher restaurants. Colorful houses line cobblestone streets, and a small river runs through it. During the day, the village is quite sleepy, waiting for the day hikers to return and the restaurants to fill at night.
- Capão is the bohemian version of Lençois, known for its arts community and hippie vibe. Accommodations are more basic compared to Lençois.